Adrienne Kennedy writes plays infrequently, so it’s noteworthy that her short one-act “Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?”, co-written with son Adam P. Kennedy, is premiering at the Public Theater. The piece also serves to launch the company’s Public Lab series, a promising collaboration with LAByrinth Theater that mounts new work quickly, replacing development hell with bare-bones productions. That said, it would be a plus if the play at the center of this enterprise were more theatrical.
Which is not to say it’s a bust. An engaging monologue, the script recounts Kennedy’s actual experiences in the late 1960s, when she worked with London’s National Theater to adapt “In His Own Write,” a collection of John Lennon’s prose work and drawings. Her story, delivered from a lectern by a character called Mom (Brenda Pressley), should particularly fascinate pop culture buffs.
And along with its anecdotes, the piece delivers vivid emotion. We learn how the woman’s desire to be accepted by famous people — particularly National a.d. Laurence Olivier — made her marginalize herself as an artist and a person. That pain is matched by wisdom in the present, and Pressley’s pauses and smiles clarify the woman’s affection for her foolish younger self.
Ultimately, this is a touching slice of memoir that provides another look at the writer’s wounded, hesitant life.
But in the past, Kennedy’s neuroses have been the touchstone for something larger. Her divided thoughts on race birthed surreal dramas like “Funnyhouse of a Negro” and “Ohio State Murders,” which are both humanly relatable and mythic in scope. Her fascination with Hollywood led to “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White,” which not only explores the cultural power of film, but also crafts potent theatrical images.
By comparison, “Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?” is a diary entry.
The story is straightforward and literal, and the occasional offstage questions from the woman’s son (William DeMeritt) keep the character talking about herself, never considering the larger implications of her tale. (The piece reportedly began as a taped conversation between the Kennedys.)
Minimal design touches add texture — the James Bond theme punctuates a funny moment, projections show London in the sixties — but they don’t expand the play’s meaning. This is disappointing, since Adrienne Kennedy’s work usually forces designers to stretch themselves.
She usually makes audiences stretch themselves, too, but this time her words would be as appropriate at a dinner party as they are in a theater.